Although Minnesota has no real history of coal mining, some people might be interested in an alarming report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Cases of black lung disease, which dropped to all-time low numbers in the late 20th century, have increased sharply in the past few years.

Black lung is a term that encompasses several lung diseases that are caused by the inhalation of coal dust. Coal miners are susceptible when they cut into coal seams and dust particles are released into the air. If dust particles enter the lungs, the immune system is triggered as it would be for bacteria or a virus, but it cannot effectively combat minerals like coal dust. Eventually the lungs deteriorate, and a lung transplant is the only cure. But even when a lung transplant is possible, it usually only extends the patient’s life for a few years.

Cases of black lung disease were numbered in the double digits at the end of the 20th century. But between 2013 and 2017, hundreds of cases were reported. A study by NIOSH that investigated the increase attributes it to longer shifts for coal workers and the mining of thinner coal seams. Miners are also getting diagnosed at younger ages than in the past. NIOSH also says that the higher numbers of reported cases could be in part because workers who skip doctor visits while working may go in for checkups after they retire or when they are laid-off. Regulations intended to protect coal miners were implemented in 2016, but are scheduled to be reviewed as part of President Trump’s plan to roll back federal regulations. There are currently about 50,000 coal miners working in the United States.

Workers’ compensation benefits are available for occupational diseases as well as on-the-job injuries. Victims of toxic exposure may want to have the assistance of an attorney when preparing and filing their claims.